Repopulating the American landscape with the plants that were growing on it before European settlement would serve many good purposes, said Donna Van Buecken at a breakout session at the 2014 conference of the Wisconsin Master Gardeners Association.
Van Buecken is the executive director of the 16-acre WILD Center south of Neenah and the owner of Accent on Natural Landscaping in Appleton. The WILD Center is associated with Wild Ones, which is a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization that has 11 chapters in Wisconsin and chapters in 13 other states.
Wild Ones emphasizes the growth and preservation of the native plant species that had established themselves on the landscape in pre-European settlement times, Van Buecken said. In Wisconsin, those thousands of plant species were matched with such primary ecological regions as prairie, woods and wetlands.
Those plants had sustained themselves by being suited to the combination of soil, sunlight, wind and temperatures they faced and were the base of a biodiversity that sustained the entire scope of nature on the landscape, Van Buecken explained. She emphasized that temperature alone was not the determinant for what plants found a home on the landscape.
The native species were an integral part of the "circle of life" that included insects, birds, animals and humans, Van Buecken said. As part of that circle of life, the plants provided birds with seeds and nectar, along with being vital for insects at various stages of their growth.
But much of that native self-sustaining landscape has been converted to other uses and conditions, including what Van Buecken described as "the nonliving landscape" of urban and suburban lawns. She noted that such landscapes, with their shallow-rooted grasses, result in the waste of water and are the sources of pesticide and fertilizer runoff to surface waters — not to mention the carbon emitted by lawn mowers.
About 33 percent of the residential use of water is put onto lawns, Van Buecken pointed out. The annual application of fertilizer to lawns in the United States is about 50 billion pounds, she added.
A quote from Lorrie Otto, who was a naturalist teacher, serves as a guide and motivator for Wild Ones, Van Buecken said. Otto wrote: "If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar."
The waste, pollution, and imbalance of nature, which is affecting the animal kingdom, would be eliminated with the restoration of the native species that have deep roots, reduce erosion, require little maintenance and support the chain of nature by providing food and shelter, Van Buecken pointed out. She said Kentucky bluegrass fails on all those counts.
What's been done in Grayslake, IL, shows that change can be accomplished on a community level, Van Buecken said. One of the offshoots of the Grayslake requirement that landscaping include at least 70 percent native plants has been the ability to raise endangered species of native fish in the ponds and lakes where the community's runoff water collects.
Many species of native plants are suitable for locations with a full sun, shade or wet habitat, Van Buecken said. The latter ones are ideal for rain gardens, which can be established on public and private properties to collect runoff water directly from roofs, hard surfaces, or natural drainage routes.
From early to late season, the native plants that thrive in full or partial shade include the shooting star, trillium, May apple, bloodroot, columbine, bottle bush, serviceberry and elderberry, Van Buecken noted. Top choices for full sun are prairie smoke, blazing star, bee balm, indigo, cup plant, culver roots, goldenrod, prairie drop seed and blue stem.
For rain gardens, Van Buecken listed blue flag iris, Joe pye weed, red cardinal and milkweed. Other readily available species in the native species group are wild geranium, coneflowers and thimbleweed.
The emerging public concern about the survival of insects such as bees and Monarch butterflies is rooted in part in the eradication of plant populations on which they depend, Van Buecken said.
Bees are vulnerable to the pesticides with nematicide traits, which are frequently applied to lawns and field crops, while Monarch butterflies require milkweed (four varieties of it) to reproduce and rely on native plants such as the New England aster as a source of nectar late in the season, she explained.
Because it has been greatly affected by population losses by droughts in Texas during its migrating periods, the Monarch butterfly faces a very challenging future, Van Buecken reported. The Monarch habitat site in Mexico this past winter covered a worst-ever .67 hectare (about one and a half acres) compared to 20.57 hectares as recently as 1997.
To support the limited number of Monarchs reaching Wisconsin in recent years, Wild Ones provided free packets of common milkweed seeds for conference attendees to grow. Van Buecken noted that common milkweed plants can live for 5 to 10 years and that they can spread by rhizomes.
In addition to using the northern habitat and its supply of milkweed to reproduce, the Monarch butterfly is valuable for its ability to pollinate fruits, vegetables, grains and trees, Van Buecken noted. She said its presence or lack of it is "a flagship of conservation status."
Property owners who want to establish native plants should not dig plants or take seeds from those that are still surviving in their own habitat, Van Buecken emphasized. What they should do is obtain seeds from specialty nurseries (Prairie Nursery in Westfield is a major one) rather than from large box stores or even most greenhouses.
Be sure to ask for and insist on straight local species rather than clones or modified cultivars, she advised. For example, don't obtain trillium from Tennessee or any species from distant suppliers even though the plant might have the same name.
Van Buecken invites all interested persons to visit the WILD Center at 2285 Buttes des Morts Beach Road, Neenah. The Center, which is adjacent to a swamp, has three rain gardens and is a showcase for native plants and what can be accomplished with them.
Once established, a garden, field or lawn of native species plants should undergo a burn every three or four years, Van Buecken advised. She said it would be ideal to burn a quarter of the plot every four years.
One of the activities of the Wild Ones organization is to collect and save seeds from endangered native species. It then grows plants from them and offers them or their seeds for growing sites where they are needed.
For more information on the WILD Center, visit www.wildones.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.